Don't keep TV audiences in the dark

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By N.E. Marsden
Friday, October 30, 2009

After a U.S. senator was shot on Fox's drama "24" this year, another character blurted out the make and model of the assassin's submachine gun. The German brand had been prominent in so many episodes of "24" that gun-enthusiast bloggers, among others, speculated whether the company was paying to advertise on the show.

That question deserves an answer. In 1999, Entertainment Weekly revealed "one of Hollywood's dirtiest little secrets -- that just like chips or beer, guns get product placement." Today, product placement is considered a legitimate revenue stream, raising concern that some producers may be paid to showcase guns and, by extension, gun violence, on television.

Similar questions surround "plugs" for prescription drugs. In 2007, Fortune touted product placement as a way to market pharmaceuticals without disclosing drug side effects, noting that drugs were mentioned more than 700 times in nine months on prime-time shows. Most drug companies deny paying for in-show promotions, but iTVX.com, a Web site that reports on product placement, speculated in May last year that "many of these seemingly casual references are anything but."

Researchers at the University of California at Los Angeles warned in the Journal of Public Policy and Marketing last year that marketing drugs in television story lines poses serious risks to consumers; the same can be said for marketing weapons, alcohol, tobacco, gambling and junk food. Using branded products to convey realism is one thing; accepting a payment to "place" a product in a story line is a Trojan horse of another color.

When a portrayal is "induced by consideration" (a payment), the product will usually be shown in a positive light, even glamorized, injecting promotional bias that is anticipated in advertising but that may slip under the radar in other contexts.

Any time a persuader can pay to embed messages in mass media without the public's full awareness, citizens are at risk. Thus beginning Dec. 1, the Federal Trade Commission will require bloggers and, more important, stealth corporate marketers to post "clear and conspicuous" disclosures when they receive payment for endorsing products online. Though the details have been hotly contested, the principle is sound: People have a right to know when someone is trying to sell them something.

Similar sponsorship identification disclosures are required on broadcast television, but the notices are buried in the credits, too small, too fleeting and too obscure ("promotional consideration provided by") to be effective. There are no disclosure rules for most cable and satellite networks, including channels geared to youth. The resulting lack of transparency invites covert marketing, stealth targeting of children and paid propaganda.

In a void of public accountability, screenwriters are being forced to script dialogue, scenes and whole episodes to inculcate targeted consumer behaviors -- a practice known as product integration. In a 2005 white paper, the Writers Guild of America called it "stealth advertising," stating that "millions of viewers are sometimes being sold products without their knowledge, sold in opaque, subliminal ways, and sold in violation of governmental regulations."

In 2007, the Writers Guild appealed to Congress, armed with a video of egregious examples that included "news" segments produced by PR agencies and aired as news. Equally deceptive were two episodes of the family drama "Seventh Heaven." Despite widespread alarm over childhood diabetes and obesity, or perhaps because of those concerns, Kraft hijacked the show's beloved characters as shills. The youngest boy says wistfully, "If you give somebody an Oreo, they'll talk to you." The father, a preacher, signs to a deaf person, "Oreos are my favorite." The family eats so many Oreos in two episodes that Reps. Edward Markey (D-Mass.) and Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) wrote to the FCC in September 2007 warning that some shows are verging on "program-length infomercials."

The FCC is considering rule amendments that would (1) make disclosures more salient to the audience, (2) extend disclosure rules to satellite and cable networks and (3) ban product placement in programs for children under 12. The proceeding, launched by former FCC chairman Kevin Martin last year, is rooted in a principle that has long been acknowledged by Congress and the FCC: People have a right to know when someone is trying to sell them something.

Because media providers are blurring the line between advertising and content, FCC action is critical. Parents have a right to know who is doctoring the programs their children watch, and citizens have a responsibility to hold companies accountable for their marketing practices. But without full transparency, the public is in the dark and youths are at risk.

The writer is a volunteer coordinator of Fairness and Integrity in Telecommunications Media (FITMedia), a coalition of 50 organizations and professionals seeking FCC rulemaking on embedded TV advertising. She also blogs at HuffingtonPost.com.


© 2009 The Washington Post Company

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